Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What the Swami Said

Arthur Brooks went to India to consult a famous monk, only to find that the swami was actually born in Texas and made a pile of money in America before giving it up to seek enlightenment in India:
I posed a query nonetheless: “Swami, is economic prosperity a good or bad thing?” I held my breath and waited for his answer.

“It’s good,” he replied. “It has saved millions of people in my country from starvation.”

This was not what I expected. “But you own almost nothing,” I pressed. “I was sure you’d say that money is corrupting.” He laughed at my naïveté. “There is nothing wrong with money, dude. The problem in life is attachment to money.” The formula for a good life, he explained, is simple: abundance without attachment.
This is an old idea but I confess that I have always been suspicious of it. It sounds to me like something rich people tell themselves to soothe their consciences: It's ok that I'm rich, because I'm not attached to it!

How can you hold onto anything without being attached to it?

I suppose there are people who have managed to make a lot of money more or less by accident, but by and large it takes a lot of effort to get rich. To be in business pretty much means spending all your time thinking about how to raise revenue and keep expenses down, which strikes me (and feels to me personally, when I do it) as attachment to money in the crassest sense.

I tend to feel that all desire for material things is in some sense corrupting. This is also an old idea captured in the teachings of Jesus (give all you have to the poor and follow me) and the Buddha (desire is suffering).

But this view of things tends to set up enlightenment as a path incompatible with what we call normal life, a way open only to professional renouncers who end up being cared for by the less enlightened. That, it seems to me, can't be right either.

Religion continues to thrive in our world of science and material abundance because many of us have a nagging sense that all the machines and toys we have built are somehow a mistake. Or maybe better a distraction. The seeking of such things stirs up our restlessness and our desire more than it sates them; and yet what is life without restlessness, without desire?

There is another old idea that intrudes on these conversations: heaven, or nirvana, a state that somehow embodies the best of being alive without any of the pain of living. I distrust this idea, because I think that the pain and corruption of existence are essential to being alive. Without them we could no longer be human. Perfection, I think, is the opposite of humanity, not its culmination.

We make our way through these thickets as best we can, trying to hold onto what feels most vital and not think too much about what feels false. I suppose "wealth without attachment" is a compromise that works for some people, a path that gets them through the jungles of life. And perhaps that is the best most of us can do.

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